Archive | In My Mind’s I by Harriet Gross

Being there for my sister

Posted on 06 November 2019 by admin

I write this while at my desk at home, thinking of where I’ll be next week at this time — in Scarsdale, New York, staying with my niece and her family so that I can spend time with my only sister, my niece’s mother, who is in the process of moving (or “being moved” is more accurate) from a rehab center in nearby Rye Brook to hospice care — place as yet to be determined. Her time, according to her doctors, may be very short. Or not. 

For sisters, the only two children in our family, the five years in age between us put us into virtually different generations — we really didn’t “catch up” with each other until both of us were married and had children. But even then, time was different, as it is now: I already have two great-grandchildren; she has two grandchildren, the oldest of whom is just in high school. 

We were never in the same school at the same time. I was married and a mother by the time she graduated from college, and our college experiences were very different: I chose the big university in the city; she chose a small women’s college, because she believed — early on — that girls were held back by teachers who favored male students. 

My sister did well in her undergraduate setting, despite the fact that she is — and has always been — bipolar. It’s a tribute to her ability to cope, to accept counseling and medication as lifetime necessities, that she went on to get two other degrees: a master’s in history and an MBA. But despite the latter, her work was always in high school history teaching. She did well, but not as well as she might have done had she not been subject to the mood swings associated with her condition. 

I was already married and mother of two when she came to Chicago to live — not with me, but near me; unmarried young women were not encouraged to go off on their own in those pre-feminist days. She shared an apartment with a friend from school, but there were many mornings — especially in the dark ones of Chicago winters — when I had to be at her place to roust her out of bed and make sure she was dressed and ready to go to school. Her students loved her; when she taught in New York’s Spanish Harlem after her own marriage, kids who had little or no use for school would cut all their classes except hers. For them, she was a performer; she learned rebel yells and folksongs, accompanying herself on the guitar. And once, when someone stole her hubcaps during a school day, those students offered to go out themselves and steal some to replace them!

Not all the memories are bad, but not all are good, either. We were never quite “the same”; it was always Big Sister and Little Sister. She herself had two daughters, but they were close in age, only one year apart in school, so they were friends as they grew up. However, they suffered in adulthood as their mother separated them: She depended on one and cut herself off from the other, making the one she depended on just as dependent on her, and cut off from her sister as well. 

All families are different. I know that. None, I suspect, are really “normal,” whatever that is — if you can get into them and truly know them. My sister hasn’t spoken to me for several years, no matter how hard I’ve tried to reopen the doors of communication that she herself closed. But today, when she can no longer speak, her daughter — the one she hasn’t talked to in years — tells me that my sister keeps the Shanah Tovah note I sent to her this year on her bedside table, and smiles when she looks at it. 

I wish my family were different in a different way. 

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Dr. Lieberman merits Bnai Zion honor

Posted on 31 October 2019 by admin

When Bnai Zion honors Zeck Lieberman next Monday evening, I’ll be leading the cheers! Here’s why: Thirty-five years ago, when the words “breast cancer” were still spoken in whispers and mastectomy was the treatment of choice, I found a lump in my own right breast. I hadn’t been in Dallas long enough to know much about its medical community, but several women in our Jewish community steered me toward Dr. Lieberman.
Forty-plus years ago, when I lived in a suburb south of Chicago, Illinois built its Governors State University near my home. A woman I knew from synagogue became its research and reference librarian, and when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she decided to speak out about it. In her professional position, Mimi Kaplan studied her own disease, found that some new and different ideas about treatment were beginning to emerge, and organized a community conference on the subject. I covered it for the newspaper I worked for then, and what I learned resurfaced for me when I needed it myself.
Our cutting-edge Dr. Lieberman first acknowledged that my tumor was very small, so small that he might not even have seen it on a mammogram. And then he said this: “Your lump didn’t grow in 10 days, so you can take 10 days to decide how to handle it.” He was one of that small, early cadre of oncologists who did not believe that immediate mastectomy was the only treatment for breast cancer. He offered alternatives, and as a result, my breast was saved.
Twelve years later: another health plan, another lump, this time in my left breast. This one showed clearly on the mammogram, but my physician did not propose an immediate mastectomy, instead asking me to first be part of a new study testing whether lumpectomy alone was sufficient treatment for my second type of breast cancer. Of course, I said yes, and of course I was sorry when it turned out that my cancer would need more than that one simple surgery. I was offered a tough choice: mastectomy, or five long years on the drug Tamoxifen.
My new oncologist was a woman, so I asked her what she would choose if she were in my position. Without hesitation, she said, “I’d have the mastectomy. Otherwise, I’d get up every morning, look at myself in the mirror while I was brushing my teeth, and wonder if the cancer was coming back.” But she had already gotten to know me well enough to follow up her initial statement with this: “That wouldn’t be the case with you, would it?”
I opted for the pills, one every day for 60 months. This regimen also required two gynecological exams each year instead of the usual one, the second for a uterine biopsy to determine if the drug was causing cell changes, which eventually it did. My fifth year of Tamoxifen treatment ended with a complete hysterectomy, which was OK: I was beyond child-bearing age, and that surgery was much simpler than any mastectomy.
My initial lumpectomy kept me hospitalized for days because there wasn’t yet any drain that could go home with the patient. My identical second was done in a day. I remembered Dr. Lieberman telling my husband during that first long stay, “Your wife doesn’t have to eat this hospital food! Go out and get her a corned beef sandwich!” After my same surgery the second time, Fred and I went immediately to Cindi’s and ate corned beef sandwiches together.
Oct. 26 of this year marked my 34th Komen Race for the Cure. I never ran; I no longer even walk the course. Now I sit in the survivors’ tent, cheering on the many young women who’ve been able to opt for minimal surgeries, thanks to today’s doctors routinely following the pioneering lead of a few, including our own Zeck Lieberman. I cheer for him now, and I cheer Bnai Zion for honoring him!

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The Tree of Life shooting: 1 year later

Posted on 23 October 2019 by admin

One year has passed since Tree of Life became a site of death for 11 individuals and the three small congregations that used to worship within its walls. No one had ever dreamed that this place would go down in history as the most violent single act of anti-Semitism the United States has ever known. 

The building stands today, unopened and unused. People may walk around it, look at it, but not enter it. The three small congregations have been “adopted,” finding their new spiritual homes in others of Pittsburgh’s many and vibrant Jewish houses of worship. 

A quiet debate has raged for this past year: What should happen to the shooter?  Should he be put to death as the murderer he is, or be sentenced to incarceration for the rest of his own natural life. Even the survivors and their families, and the families of those who are now gone forever, have not been able to agree. Yes, he does not merit living on as a free man; all can agree on that. But to kill him would be an ending that many object to, while giving him life in prison would force him to live with the memories of what he did for many years to come. Would that be a “better” choice of punishment? 

Pittsburgh’s Jewish Chronicle, a weekly sister to our own TJP, has taken this entire past year to think about how it covered the Tree of Life story, and only now, on this first anniversary, publicly released an explanation of its own reportorial approach. For me, this has shown the best of what today’s often-maligned journalism can be: thoroughly investigating, then cautiously reporting facts as found in ways that inform rather than further inflame, letting truth speak for itself. Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the city’s daily “paper on paper,” has already won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for its extensive coverage of that story that everyone hopes will never have to be told again. And it was the Post-Gazette that earlier this month released its own story on how the weekly Chronicle went about its coverage. Here are some excerpts from it: 

“The Chronicle’s staff follows Jewish law that stipulates no work be done on Shabbat…The first instinct of Jim Busis, chief executor and publisher, who lives only a few blocks from Tree of Life, was to walk over and start taking notes and photos. But his faith informed his decision to stay away. Not only could he not rush to the scene to gather information; he couldn’t ask his two reporters, both Jewish, to go either. But he knew that first responders were at Tree of Life, and recognized that wasn’t his role.: “I decided to wait until sunset…and then we were going to get and tell this story.

“Beginning that evening and for the next three days until its print deadline, the Chronicle’s small staff poured all its resources into putting out the shocking news. Mr Busis realized it couldn’t compete with the volume of stories being churned out by other local publications, radio and television outlets, and national media who descended on Pittsburgh…”

Under Busis’ lead – and with a new third reporter added to his staff – the Chronicle left coverage of gunman Robert Bowers to those others and prioritized what was most local for its own 11,500 readers:  the victims, the three small congregations, and the impact of this most deadly act of anti-Semitism on both the Pittsburgh Jewish community and the city as a whole. 

This-coming Sunday, exactly one year since the 2018 attack, my home city — where I had my own first job in journalism with its Jewish weekly — will observe a public moment of remembrance, called Pause with Pittsburgh, at 5 p.m. (Eastern time). We here can join in by signing up at http://www.pausewithpittsburgh.com (see the story on Page 4 of this week’s TJP) to see, hear, and send our own messages of support. Will you join me? Please, and thank you!

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Memories of High Holidays from long ago

Posted on 16 October 2019 by admin

For me, the best thing about our High Holiday season is memories: the ones we treasure from long-ago times, and the new ones we create. Here are some of mine:
When I was a high-schooler, my mother and I would walk together every year for Kol Nidre. (Dad wasn’t a shul-goer; his own memories of knuckle-cracking teachers when he was a boy in cheder left him with a permanent avoidance of rabbis.) Mom had an interesting habit: saving all the Shanah Tovahs she had written, addressed, and stamped before Rosh Hashanah and during the 10 days after, take the pile with her on Erev Yom Kippur, and drop them into the mailbox at the end of our street. “It’s still the New Year,” she would always say. Nearing home on our way back, we would pass the adjoining houses of my father’s sisters and their families, who were as non-observant as he. They’d be sitting on their front porches, waiting and would stand as we passed by to ask us if we wanted to come in for a cup of coffee! Hospitality, irony, or pure ignorance — I’ve never been sure.
The idea of fasting was carried to extremes in our shul, where a heavy block of wood covered every sink in the building, making it impossible for anyone even to attempt drinking water on the premises throughout Yom Kippur. This is something I’ve never heard of since.
Before the Day of Atonement were the “Days of Ostentation”: the first two of the New Year were always fashion shows! All the women had new dresses and hats; children had been fitted for new shoes at the start of the school year but weren’t allowed to wear them until the holidays. I guess I should capitalize, because The Holidays were of capital importance to us as high-schoolers for other reasons than religious observance: As teenagers, we also dressed up. Since we weren’t tethered to our seats as we had pretty much been when we were younger, we often left the shul’s interior to mingle outside with our friends, and since there were many shuls within easy walking distance, we would even use this “timeout” for a leisurely stroll, enjoying meet-ups with similar “escapees” who worshiped elsewhere.
In later years, in other places, when I had children of my own, I was one of those who remained rooted in my seat until the end of every service, which meant I depended on the kindness of others to have an after-the-fast meal ready when the last shofar blast declared that Yom Kippur was over. There was always a friend who was relieved — actually delighted! — to be able to escape early and have orange juice, coffee, and food already on the table when I appeared. A favorite break-fast meal featured blintzes lovingly made in advance, then frozen, and finally defrosted when my domestic friends left services in time to go home for the final frying.
A true confession here, which I’m sure will not surprise those of you who know me: I have never made blintzes in my life! I have opened packages, fried up their contents and found them delicious, but having long watched the kitchen construction work done by mother, I knew early on that I was never going to spend my own time putting them together from the proverbial “scratch.” But I was truly blessed with friends who doubly enjoyed this work: first, making the blintzes; then, having them as an excuse for shortening their shul day! And — truth told — I’ve never been able to tell the difference between the homemade and the “manufactured” ones; I just enjoy them both.
This year’s happy addition to my holiday memory bank: about a dozen little kids on the bima, coaxing squeaky sounds out of their plastic shofarot, then after losing breath, looking raptly and with longing at our Baal Tokia as his powerful blast ushered us all into the New Year!

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Plant-based meats: What’s old is new again

Posted on 10 October 2019 by admin

Yom Kippur is over, so we can talk about food again. On my mind: a certain kind of food…
I’m amused by all the hoopla about plant-based meat substitutions. Have you tried a kosher burger yet? I haven’t, and here’s why: I don’t have to! My story once again proves to that old adage, “There’s nothing new under the sun.”
The year was 1948. The time was July. We were still celebrating the establishment of the State of Israel just two months before when my father decided we needed to think of something else: a trip to Miami Beach! Dad was a doctor, and very concerned by my sister’s recurring “northerner” bronchitis; a month in the sun would do wonders for her, he believed. Of course, he wouldn’t go himself; as a redhead with the kind of complexion that’s better off indoors, he’d stay at home and take careful care of both himself and his precious rose garden — in short bursts of outdoor time in much less threatening weather than sunny Florida.
(Side info: I‘ve learned that doctors are often horticulture hobbyists; the idea, and the reality, of planting and growing something beautiful and alive helps with that other reality: losing a patient to something incurable. My sad personal experience: When an oncologist loses someone to something that we all knew almost from the get-go would eventually be fatal, he or she often walks away without a word to the deceased’s family. I wish someone would address this in today’s medical schools; truly, the survivors are not laying personal blame on the physician, just on the cancer. And as for dentists: They are often wood or soap carvers; the honing of small decorative items uses – and sharpens – their finger dexterity.)
So off we went – mother, sister and – by train. Dad drove us from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C., where we boarded a plush rail car, the kind just about out of existence these days. I remember very well being shocked that the cost of a simple sandwich in the white-glove-service diner was a whole dollar; I was used to a counter stool at Woolworth’s or Kresge’s, where a sandwich and coffee cost a quarter!
There are some things from that trip that we never recovered from. My sister’s bronchitis became less of a problem, but was not cured. I disregarded all warnings to take it easy in the Florida sun for the first few days; as a teen with disdain for such practical advice, I spent the first day on a beautiful beach, sipping “Sambos” (and who, these days, would dare name a canned chocolate beverage that?!) and the next day or two lying on my stomach in a hospital to spare my very sore back; I had totally ignored the fact that my skin coloring was so much like my father’s. Mostly, we agreed many years later, that we had never seen anything like the flimsy, tarpaper shacks we saw from train windows as we passed through the deep south — knowing people lived in them, but not knowing until years had passed why they lived in them…
Well, I didn’t go back to the beach much after that; instead, I went to the Y and learned to play Ping-Pong, becoming very good at it. Years later, I was in a regular lunchtime doubles game with two ministers and the man who directed our town’s Human Relations Commission. I still have my paddle, but the skill lives on only in my memory.
But I digress. It was food — vegetarian hamburgers — that got me started on all this remembering, so here it is: First: I ate my very first pizza that month in Miami — a sloppy mess. Second: I had a delicious “meat” dinner in a kosher restaurant, finding out only later that the tasty “beef” had actually been formed of soy protein! Another truth: Often what is old becomes new again. Burger time now, maybe?

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Food and cloth: an observation

Posted on 02 October 2019 by admin

Our Jewish holidays always emphasize food. There’s a very good reason for that: No matter where we live, no matter how good or how bad our living conditions may be, we have to eat. So, what we eat can vary greatly from one place to the other. That accounts, for instance, to the fact that legumes (peas, beans, etc.) have long been a Passover no-no among Ashkenazi Jews, but for Sephardis, are staples of their holiday menus. Nor are apples and honey necessarily universal at this season.
I saw the Montreal food movie, “Chewdaism: A Taste of Jewish Montreal,” during our recent Jewish Film Festival, and my mouth watered with every bite taken (and there were many) of “smoked meat” sandwiches. Once I tried that brisket-type delicacy – long ago, during a too-brief visit to the city of its origin – and I was hooked. But I haven’t been able to eat it since. I was hopeful that the Canadian restaurant that opened here in Dallas might be a source, but it’s not. And I’m sure the meat there wouldn’t be kosher, anyway. But I’m happy because that place has what I think is the very best Greek salad in town.
So, food availability can be a regional determiner of Jewish food preferences. But consider how other things – or lack of them – can also influence major areas of Jewish life, and continue on for years. One great example, right here in America, is the prominence of Jews in all facets of the clothing business – designing, making, selling and everything else. There’s a very good, very practical, and at its base a very sad reason for this.
Years ago, and for many years in many places, our people’s ways of making their livings were limited. Probably best known is how European Jews, for generations, could not own land, even when they farmed it themselves, or engage in many kinds of business. Instead, they were encouraged – even forced – to earn their daily bread by doing things no one else wanted to do, or which, in certain eras in certain places, the ruling Church forbade them to do. What was left, and most demanded of our people? Money lending. Think of Shakespeare’s Shylock and the debates that have raged for years over his “Merchant of Venice.” And, pawn-brokering is a bedrock occupation in the money-lending business. Think of the many Jewish families – right here in our area – who had their local business beginnings with pawn shops.
Here is a great and basically true back story. A poor family in Turkey had three marriageable daughters, but no money for dowries. Help came from a rich man who used his wealth to help the poor, but always anonymously. He prepared three bags of gold and gave them to the family, by climbing up on their roof and dropping them down the chimney. This was the birth of a legend: Santa Claus, aka Saint Nicholas. And, this was the reason that pawnshops used to have three gold balls as their symbol. Also, this is the reason that, in the Catholic Church even today, Nicholas is the patron saint of pawnbrokers.
Now, If you’re in the pawn broker business, what do you do with what comes to you that you can’t sell? If it’s anything made of cloth, you learn to make something from it that will sell, and clothing is always a good seller. This is the origin of our Jewish affinity for both the needle trades and clothing stores. It is also the origin of successful efforts, by the Jewish community and women leaders in the labor movement, at improving factory safety after the 1911 New York Triangle shirtwaist factory fire, and ultimately, even of unionization.
Our Jews had long before learned that what’s in your head can never be taken from you, and what is useful but small enough to be carried when you are forced to move is just the same. That little sewing needle has made many big things happen for us, right here in America!

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Clean slates, new beginnings and apologies

Posted on 25 September 2019 by admin

The challenges of saying ‘I’m sorry’

On my very last day of sixth grade, a representative of the big school that all of us would be attending (from junior high through high school graduation) came with a bit of orientation. I’ve never forgotten what he said: “We give you a clean slate.” Then, after a pause: “But you know what people do with clean slates, don’t you? They scribble all over them!”
And so, we did. And so do all of us, every year, starting right after the High Holidays. Rosh Hashanah gives us 10 days before Yom Kippur to erase our past year’s slate, so we can start scribbling on a clean one. Which is just what we quickly begin to do.
In one religious school, years ago, we used to teach the little kids — kindergarten and first-graders — to sing a song with these words: “Let’s be friends. Make amends. Now’s the time to say ‘I’m sorry.’” Of course, we explained “amends” in ways they could understand before going on: “Take my hand and I’ll take yours; let’s be friends for always.”
I always wish adult life could be that simple. I try to use those 10 days of teshuvah — which in that little song are explained as “time to worship, time to pray” — to make amends. But I’m not ever as successful as I’d like to be. Sometimes my apologies are rebuffed, and I can do nothing more about them. Although, Judaism urges me to try again and again, time and distance may make this difficult. Sometimes, I learn that whatever I’m apologizing for is something the person I’m apologizing to doesn’t even remember, or makes nothing of what, to me, was an important no-no. And, sometimes I just plain forget something important until those 10 days are long over, and I’ve gone into another New Year with unfinished business on my unknowing conscience.
These days, some people send out blanket emails, apologizing to everyone in their online address books for anything they might have posted, or said, or done in the past year that could have offended one, or some, or all of the message’s recipients. Does this count? Should it?
Apologizing is always easier with my non-Jewish friends, who can accept it without fully understanding how and why this interesting annual soul-cleansing ritual is of such great importance to me. I do tell them that my life may depend upon it, and leave it at that. I don’t know if this is actually true, if failure to erase that well-scribbled slate in any given year may actually result in never having the opportunity to scribble again. But I prefer not to take any chances.
I have just thought of something. When I send my Shanah Tovah cards — which I still do every year, despite the ease of email — I might add a blanket “Please forgive anything I may have done in the past year to upset or anger you.” This might be a bit too impersonal to pass muster, so I’m not sure I’m willing to try it, at least not this year. But it’s something to think about for next year, which I hope my teshuvah efforts will have assured me that I’ll have: another year in which to try harder not to amass any matters for which I’ll have to apologize. Or, at least fewer of them.
But that’s for next year. This year is coming to its end, and the time is now here for me to say to all of you, “Thanks for reading me this year. And if I’ve written anything you don’t agree with — or dislike — or find totally offensive — please let me know.” Then I can apologize, with the assurance that I’ve said I’m sorry for something specific, because you’ve told me what that is. And then, maybe we can take each other’s hands and be friends — at least for next year, if not for always. Shanah Tovah!

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Commemorating two strong women

Posted on 18 September 2019 by admin

September means two yahrzeits, for mother and aunt

It happens like this every year, sometime in September. I stand in shul, on two successive Shabbats, for two beloved relatives who died in the same hospital within the same week, so many years ago. 

It was 1984. My mother had no definitive illness; she just went slowly, slowly downhill until she passed away. On her death certificate, the reason given is “anemia of unknown etiology.” 

My Aunt Luba had cancer, throughout her body. She was wiry and strong all her life, until one day she fell, and couldn’t get up. But she had neglected to tell anyone — especially not her doctor — that she had been spitting up blood. 

Two women, two sisters, so different in life, so different in death. I made a last visit to see them just a week or so before they died, just a few days apart — but just long enough to make their yahrzeits fall in two different weeks. 

I had just had my first breast cancer surgery, and was undergoing radiation treatment, when I knew I had to go home to say goodbye to my mother and my aunt. My treatment team gave me one day off, giving me a three-day weekend away from my own illness, to face the illness of two beloved others. My visit to my mother was the hardest: I had not told her about my own disease, and had no intention to do so at this time of finality. 

When I entered her room, she was awake, but so weak. She gave me a small smile, limply held my hand while we exchanged a few words about — I can’t even remember what. What I will never forget is that she asked me to adjust her pillows, so that her head was higher, and she could be more comfortable. But I knew I couldn’t do that with my weak right arm, and I was not going to say no, and be honest about why. Thinking as quickly as I could under the circumstances, I said: “Let me call a nurse. Nurses are much better at this kind of thing than I am.” And, I managed to leave the room before I started to cry. My dear mother’s last request of me, and I couldn’t fulfill it. I hope none of you who read this ever have to experience such a dreadful moment. 

When I found a nurse, I told her I would walk down the hallway to see my Aunt Luba. She was her usual cheerful self, even as I came in just in time to hear her doctor give the final, fatal report. “What can I say?” was all he said. She received the news of her impending end with the same spirit she had handled everything else in a life that was — thankfully — not filled with difficulty, but like all lives, had its difficult moments. 

I kissed her and said goodbye. Then I walked back up the hallway to my mother’s room. She was asleep. I kissed her and said goodbye. I was not able to be at either of their funerals. 

There are sad things in life that are often not talked about as much as they should be. But they need to be told, to be understood, to be sympathized with. Every year, for two consecutive Shabbats, I stand in the synagogue to say Kaddish, and I cry inside for those incomplete, unsatisfying goodbyes. But I also say thanks for my own survival, which has allowed me to fulfill these sacred duties every year for the past 35 years. The lights of my mother and my aunt are lit, one the first week, the other the second, next to their plaques on my shul’s memorial board. I am grateful to be in a good place for remembering them, and for seeing the lights that remind everyone that they are remembered. 

Life is like this: It is for loving and for remembering.

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The unspoken tzedakah of 9/11

Posted on 12 September 2019 by admin

A personal account
of helping a
stranger in need
9/11/01. Another day, like Pearl Harbor, to forever “live in infamy.” Did you spend all day yesterday remembering, as I did?
What stories can be told about it? There’s a seemingly miraculous tale about nine observant Jews who prayed together regularly in a little shul near their World Trade Center offices being delayed that day because a 10th man never turned up to make a minyan. Just one of many reports invoking the Almighty.
My tale isn’t miraculous — except for the fact that it happened. I woke up that morning, turned on the TV, and started screaming. But being nothing, if not practical: I had a voucher for a flight refund from a small airline (no longer in existence) that had to be redeemed in person at its D/FW desk. When I called the airline — which, it turned out, was clueless — I was told that yes, it was business as usual, I should just come in with my voucher. So I did.
I drove to D/FW: no traffic. I drove to the proper gate entrance — no cars anywhere. I went to the airline desk: Two women were there; next to them was another airline’s desk which had already been deserted. I claimed my refund and was about to leave when suddenly a crowd of people came on the scene; the last plane in the air on its way to DF/W had just landed, and all its passengers were looking for representatives from their next-desk airline, which had none on duty.
What could I do? Everyone was milling around, needing all the help that people who have suddenly been totally deserted most need: information, and contacts for using the information they get. To their great credit, the two at the desk of that insignificant, long-gone airline stayed there, using their phones to contact hotels, to see if cabs could come to pick people up. What more could they do?
But I knew — because my Judaism has taught me nothing if not this: I could help one person directly, and by myself “save one (granted, small) world.” I picked out a man at random — tall, with thin sandy hair, looking to be in his mid-40s, wearing shorts and sandals. I went over to him and asked if I could help, and how. Turned out, he was a top-level internationally known soccer coach and judge on his way from Australia to participate in some up coming events. He was stranded far from where he was supposed to be. I invited him to come home with me, and he was more than grateful. My car — my beat-up beloved old Prizm — was the last private vehicle to leave D/FW Airport for several days to come.
Once in the house, I showed him the guest room, cleared out a shelf in the refrigerator, and offered the telephone, plus my promise to drive him to shop for his own food. (You all know by now that I am not a cook, so I included him in the amounts of whatever I threw together for my husband and myself, but gave him an option I was sure he’d also be glad to accept!) Fred also took part in driving this unexpected guest as necessary.
Our Aussie was, of course, unable to get to any of the matches he’d traveled so far for, because no planes would be flying in time. Instead, he lived with us for three weeks, until he was finally able to make arrangements for getting back to the Outback. In all that time, even at its end, no money changed hands. I never did ask for compensation, and he never did offer. We both knew that this was a once -in-a-lifetime situation that was beyond material charge or cost. We did not become friends; we have had no contact since. This was just one of those strange things — and there were so many of them — that happened in the wake of 9/11.

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Appreciating the light of knowledge

Posted on 04 September 2019 by admin

A focus on Pitt’s special ‘Lantern Night’


I have made yet another trip back to my hometown, Pittsburgh. It was for a happier occasion than the other recent three: two for visits to my dear Uncle Irwin during the illness that finally claimed his life, the final one for his funeral and shiva. In contrast, this one was for a celebration at my alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh.
Every year, Pitt has a special ceremony to welcome its entering freshmen women. Called “Lantern Night,” it’s held on the evening before the day fall classes will begin, and starts in daylight but goes on until well after dark. Every girl — 1,300 this time — gets her own lantern, pre-fitted with a candle. All gather in a huge tent outside the school’s (non-religious) Heinz Chapel to wait until after the various welcomes and such are over, then enter, 18 at a time, to face 18 women with tall tapers, nine on each side of the main aisle, and formally receive “The Light of Knowledge.”
It’s a gorgeous sight when all these young women are joined outside by those who have come to witness this event, to sing with the men’s choir the “Alma Mater,” in the shadow of Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning, under night skies lit only by those newly acquired lamps of learning.
This was the 99th year for Lantern Night, Pitt’s oldest unbroken tradition. I went back to take part as a greeter of guests and to watch, because I never got a lantern myself! You see, I entered the university at the midterm, when there was no such ceremony. My first college day was in January 1951, and I graduated in June 1954 — 65 years ago. And, when someone in “high places” heard about this, I was invited to come and be a part of this year’s evening, and receive a much-belated lantern of my own!
It was amazing to sit in the back of the chapel, as those young women entered, carrying their lanterns. They were of every size, shape, height and color, dressed as they pleased, with skirts, pants, dresses. A few hijabs identified some, but for the rest — no way to know anything about their beliefs, or lack of same. For on that one night, each was just her unidentified self, an individual ready to begin the next morning on the educational adventure of her life, no matter what course that life might take.
I myself didn’t walk in that seemingly endless line to have a candle lit. But as I watched the parade, I offered a silent prayer: that for all of these marchers, the light of knowledge would shine bright, and that at the end of the longer journey each was beginning, she might find — as I have — that my alma mater gave me everything I needed for a productive and fulfilled life: by recognizing my ability to write, and by encouraging it; fine-tuning it in classrooms, on publication staffs, and through one-on-one conferences with people who truly cared. For giving me the skills and confidence to make writing my career, and finally, to use it in sharing what I think, and know, and believe in, with those who read what I write: people like you!
I came home richer for this belated experience — for watching what I never had myself as a freshman — and for the privilege, as a very senior alumna, to claim my own lantern, which will always be with me as a symbol of the glorious Light of Knowledge that has so fully illuminated my life.
It all ended when one of the staff planners said to me, “I’m going to carve your name on the Pitt Walk of Fame! I have a penknife, and I know how to use it!” We both laughed. But I wasn’t kidding when I told her, “This is no joke. God willing, I’ll be back next year, for Lantern Night Number 100!”

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